Village Voice



Why Our City Union Leaders Need French Lessons


By Bob Fitch

April 16, 1996


This winter, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, two broadly similar budget-cutting packages were offered by two balding conservative politicians. Both austerity plans-one for France, one for New York- won initial rave reviews from their respective Establishments and from the media. But the political outcomes were startlingly different.


In France, public sector unions, written off by U.S. academic experts as hopelessly small, weak, divided and in terminal decline, sparked a successful national revolt. Transportation workers shut down trains and subways across the country. Postal workers struck. Students, staff, and faculty occupied buildings and closed down the universities. At the University of Metz, students even held a top education official hostage. After three and a half weeks of rising tempers and falling bond prices, the regime of Prime Minister Alain Juppe¢  backed down.


In New York City, by contrast, public sector union leaders charted a strategy of appeasement. Zigging and zagging behind a flying wedge of municipal union leaders led by District Council 37’s Stanley Hill, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was able to sweep aside a numerically strong but fragmented labor opposition. Workers apparently voted down a 60-month contract with no pay increases for the first two years and weak job security provisions. But Hill got to count the ballots in secret. He said his side won. Yet he refused to make the results of the local election public. Now the mayor’s gotten most of the austerity measures he asked for, plus a pay boost from $130,000 to $165,000 for himself. It even seems he can count on the active support of Hill’s 125,000-member, largely African American union for his upcoming reelection campaign. (Hill has already contributed $2,000 to Giuliani’s campaign.)


How did Guiliani manage these stunning victories while Juppe¢, his even balder counterpart, failed so ignominiously? Last year, conservative Jacques Chirac won the presidency promising jobs, jobs, jobs. Then he appointed Juppe¢, who proceeded to cut them. Juppe¢ started with doctors and railroad workers. He proposed increasing co-payments for drugs, increases in social security taxes, increases in retirement age, massive hospital closings, and transportation cut backs. Some say Juppe¢ flopped because he was seen as an arrogant technocrat, with no concern for the little people he was calling upon to make sacrifices. Surely, though, it was Guiliani who gave the master class in arrogance when he unilaterally raised the salaries of all top city pols up to 28 per cent while demanding the salaries of starting city workers be cut by 7 per cent.


Others say the problem was that Juppe¢ plan was too comprehensive. He cut too much all at once. Salami tactics-slicing off a little at a time-would have been better. But Guiliani’s austerity targets were also huge and comprehensive. They broadly overlapped with Juppe¢s cuts in welfare, transportation, education, and health care.


Guiliani tacitly endorsed the biggest subway fare hike in history as well as defended Governor George Pataki massive cuts to SUNY and CUNY and slashing of grants for Middle income and poor students. The mayor announced a plan to sell off public hospitals, and attract buyers; he ostentatiously refused to give hospital workers even the highly qualified two-year job-security guarantees he promised other city workers. In his contract with the city workers, he extracted an agreement from DC 37-which represents 125,000 city employees-to replace public sector workers with an estimated 40,000 welfare recipients who will work for just their welfare checks- while giving city employees “double zeros”-no pay increases for the first two years of a five year contract.


The two austerity programs-Guiliani’s and Juppe¢’s-boiled down to the same message to the public sector unions: Decommission all your weapons and surrender” But in New York, labor conflict was mainly restricted to a single incident at DC 37’s Barclay Street headquarters- when a contract ratification meeting turned into a nasty confrontation between a couple of senescent AFSCME leaders and hecklers. In France all hell broke loose.


The Sequestering Of Aunt Nicole


In November, French railroad workers, creating an historic alliance between Communist-affiliated Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the anti-communist Forces Ouvrière (FO) trade union federations, shut down the nation’s transporting system. For more than three weeks, trains and subways stopped running. Parisians traffic snarled. Commuter bought mountain bikes and in-line skates to get to work. Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the nearly empty downtown department stores turned sepulchral.


Workers were joined by students. Throughout France, anars and trotskis, together with more mainline socialists and communists, shut down universities. Some campuses remained closed for over a month. To calm the uprising of 17,000 students at Metz who had seized campus buildings, the Minister of National Education sent a top aide, Nicole Ferrier. But the strikers took “Aunt Nicole” hostage. Mme. Ferrier eventually escaped and fled the campus by car.


After three tumultuous weeks, despite nearly unanimous press support and strong initial backing from mainstream political leaders from conservatives to the socialists, Juppé was clearly losing it. In November he’d said 2 million demonstrators would force him to back down. On December 12, unions and students finally reached that number in giant demonstrations from Marseilles to Paris, protests they called “Juppéthon”.


At this point, Juppé could at least take consolation from the failure of the strike to spread to the private sector. But bad omens began to appear from the sacred Temple-falling bond and stock prices on the Bourse. Garbage was beginning to pile up. And speculation mounted over whether the strikers would turn the country dark by shutting off the nation’s power system. Meanwhile, the public, while greatly inconvenienced by the strikes, remained solidly behind the unions-with approval ratings never falling below 55 per cent. Finally, the following week, Juppé withdrew the part of his plan that directly affected the unions and entered into negotiations with union leaders over his broader austerity plan.


Why then-if arrogance and austerity were in rough equilibrium in Paris and New York-did the two plans play out so differently? If the elites’ actions can’t be readily distinguished, then the answer must be found in the superior abilities of the French unions to mobilize their members and win over the public.


Yet few American academics, who study them, find this explanation credible. At a conference on French unions sponsored by NYU’s Center for European Studies and Columbia’s Institute on Western Europe, held here in February, U.S. specialists read papers on the “Decline of Militarism” as if nothing much had really happened in December. Indeed, ample evidence was marshaled by the experts to explain why the December events could never had taken place.


In France, it turns out; union membership is actually lower than in the U.S., and much lower than membership in New York. Only 8 per cent of French workers belong to unions. And in the French public sector, it is only 20 per cent. In New York, we more than double those shares.


During a break in the conference, Georgetown political science professor Anthony Daley stood in the Washington Mews, explaining to me that French unions are hobbled by an overly politized multiunion system that prevents action. The unions rely on voluntary dues from their members, so they have no money and can’t afford to hire professional staffs. “Do you know how many people the CGT has to study the entire European community?” Daley asked. “Only eight,” he replied in a shocked tone.


Yet despite the lack of ample well-paid professional staff, the French public sector unions still managed to shut down much of the country. Our public sector unions employ armies of highly paid professionals. At DC 37, it’s not only elected union officials who make up to a quarter of a million a year.




There are a dozen nonelected DC 37 staffers who make over $100,000. Ten more are in the over-$90,000-a-year bracket. Besides Hill, the executive director, who makes $245,000, there is his “assistant,” Brenda White, who makes $124,000. There is DC 37’s “director,” who makes $113,000, and various “assistant division directors” who make $99,000. The editor of the DC 37 paper makes $105,000. His assistant makes $72,000. And the staff economists earns over $100,000-three times more than the head of the CGT or the head of the FO.


Yet the likelihood of these six-figure socialist organizing a militant movement to block the march of austerity lies somewhere between remote and unimaginable. How come?


Our problems touch. But in the ability to fight back against our respective Establishments, we might as well be on different planets-not just different continents.


It just may be that the “weakness” of the French unions are really their strengths. And the supposed strengths of New York unions-gushing cash flow, huge, highly paid professional staffs, automatic dues check-off, exclusive recognition of single unions-represent a dead weight anchoring them to the status quo. And separating them from the concerns of their members.


France, like much of Europe, has a multiunion system. Workers become members of unions only if they choose to join, not because the boss has granted a single union exclusive bargaining rights. Joining a union is an act of political identity. Three main union federations-communist, socialist, and centrist-compete for the political allegiance of workers on the job and in work-council elections.


“There’s been a left-right split since the French revolution,” points out Herman Benson of the Association of Union Democracy, a Brooklyn-based workers rights advocacy group. Common political allegiances enable people inside and outside the workplace to see beyond the narrow union issues. “The French,” he explains, “don’t see cutbacks as a separate labor issue. For them it’s a social issue. And the unions aren’t looked upon as “big labor”. It’s not like here where the bureaucrats sit back, isolated from the members, and don’t give a shit,” says Benson.


Deeply political, but with no automatic cash flow or contractual right to get workers fired if they refuse to pay dues, French unions must address the concerns of the members each month to get their support. “We have these little books,” explained Jean-Paul Page, a former Air France worker who serves as the head of the International Department of the CGT. “Every month we go around to the workers in the factory or in the office and ask them to buy a stamp and paste it in their book.”


This stamp gathering, or philatelisme, as it is sometimes jokingly called, doesn’t take much out of the workers pay: anywhere from a half a per cent to 1 per cent. And it not enough to allow leaders and staffers to get rich. “We make an equivalent of $2400 per month,” volunteered Page, “about what a skilled worker in the Paris region makes.” This amount is a ceiling for labor leaders. Louis Viannet, the head of the CGT, makes no more. Page offers: “We are poor, but militant.”


In New York, like the rest of America, we have monopoly unions. Even nonmembers-the so-called provisionals-must pay dues to a single union that represents everyone. All city workers covered by collective bargaining agreements have money deducted by the city from their checks. It goes directly to the union. In 1994, DC 37’s income was $66 million.


With these huge sums at stake, union leaders take the checkoff very seriously. I once asked Barry Feinstein, just after he had been forced by the Justice Department to step down as chief of the powerful Teamsters Local 237, “What was the formative event in the history of municipal unionism?” A French unionist might have said the mass sit-down strike of’ 36 that won French workers the two-week vacation. Or further back, the lost railroad strike of 1920 for nationalization in which 20,000 cheminots and their leaders imprisoned for years. But Feinstein said unhesitatingly, “When Mayor Robert Wagner gave us the dues checkoff.”


Unfortunately, Feinstein’s historical analysis is all too accurate. Unlike in Framce, where the unions must rely on members, in New York successive reformers have failed to uproot a tradition that forced weak unions to rely on a strong mayor. And not just for the dues checkoff.




Jerry Wurf, who put DC 37 on the map nearly half a century ago, saw the degenerative of domestication at work even then. He called it “collective begging.” Municipal trade union leaders, like corrupt courtiers, sought to develop ties to Democratic Party clubhouse hacks in order to gain influence with the mayor and get back petty perks for themselves. Henry Feinstein, Barry’s father, and Wurf’s predecessor, was a city chauffeur who managed to arrange a deal whereby he got driven around in a limousine provided by Mayor Wagner. “Can you imagine that,” recollects Wurf in an interview with DC 37’s official historians, “a chauffeured chauffeur>”


Wurf begat Victor Gotbaum, who begat Stanley Hill(LINK TO HILL ARTICLE} In 1986, Hill took control of the union, which by then had grown to close to 120,000 members. At $245,000 a year, Stanley Hill can afford to hire a chauffeur to drive the mayor around. But despite its growth in conventional terms-more members, more dues, more staff, bigger budget-DC 37 has devolved to a position not much different from the one it held in the pre-Wurf period. What’s changed is that Henry Feinstein and his buddies were subservient to a mildly liberal Democratic mayor. Hill and his crowd kowtow to a fiscally conservative Republican.


A recent issue of the Public Employee Press has a picture of AFSCME Board of Education Local 372 President Charlie Hughes being hugged by the mayor. Hughes’s feeble grin suggests he is only a bit more enthusiastic that journalist Pete Hamill was with being kissed by erst-while Post owner Abe Hirschfeld. But what’s Hughes going to do? Quit his $179,000-a-year job? Tell Guiliani to beat it? Hughes knows that individual unions can grow, shrink, or simply disappear at the mayor’s pleasure.


Perhaps it only anecdotal, but is seems that good things happen to union leaders who support the mayor. The head of the firefighters union endorsed Rudy’s election. Now he’s the fire commissioner. And when Rudy and the PBA were in their post mayoral election honeymoon phase, the mayor bolstered the PBA by dissolving the transit cops union and the housing cops union, adding 7,000 dues-paying members to PBA. Then there’s Hughes himself. Because he represents so many part-time, Hughes union is being used by the mayor as a wedge for the introduction of workfare people into the civil service system. But Hughes will get more dues-paying members out of the deal.


On the other hand, bad things seem to happen to leaders who oppose the mayor. Tony Bernardo, president of EMS Local 2507, fought the merger of EMS into the fire department. Last month he was dismissed from the EMS. The EMS charged that he’d driven an ambulance without a valid license in 1988, and that this February he’d left his post to attend a meeting at the Office of Labor Relations.


Arthur Cheliotes, president of CWA 1180, has been the most outspoken critic of Guiliani’s austerity plan. He’s promoted a tax-the-rich counter plan that shifts the burden to Guiliani’s chief backers-the real estate rich. Perhaps coincidentally, he’s also lost the most members to city budget cuts: CWA has dropped from 9500 to 7000. A union with less than 3 per of all city workers has taken about 15 per cent of the cuts. But Cheliotes remains unrepentant. “Did they come after us?” he asks. “Yes. Did we beat them back? Yes.”


Cheliotes remains exceptional. Typically, the municipal union leaders who survive in the political ecology of New York City are the least militant, the least responsive to members, the most anxious to pile up huge compensation packages and surround themselves with fabulously paid staffers whose main talent is unblinking loyalty to the chief.


The striking difference in combativeness between French and New York officials illustrates Darwin’s distinction between artificial and natural selection. In France, labor leaders are produced by natural selection. They develop traits that are the product of free competition between union confederations for rank and file members. When Nicole Notat, head of the centrist union federation CFDT, backed Juppé plan, her railroad membership simply deserted her. Now they have formed a new autonomous railroad federation. French leaders must either lead where members want to go, or get trampled by those looking for another union.


In New York, leaders are the product of artificial selection. They’re bred by City Hall for certain desirable traits-the chief one being docility toward their handlers. Competing with each other for the mayor’s favor, for the right to graze on members’ dues, our public sector union leaders increasingly resemble what’s happened to fan-tailed sheep. These creatures, who are raised for their tasty, marbled mutton, are now so heavy they can’t even mate without assistance.


The return of collective begging certainly hasn’t paid off for the members, who in salary terms have regressed to pre-‘60s days when private sector workers made substantially more than unionized city workers. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that private sector secretaries make $80 a week more than public sector workers. Private sector clerks, $60 more. Security guards represented by DC 37 now make less money in real terms than they did a quarter century ago.


Today, starting city clerks make only $17,000. Under the terms of the new contract they will make 7 per cent less. How can Hill justify pay increases for top officials and staff and pay cuts for the workers? I asked Hill, “How can you have a 5-1 or even a 10-1 gap between union staffers and the people who pay their dues?”


“It has nothing to do with fairness,” Hill explained. “A staff person has to deal with the services. We have guys who give tons of services that are outstanding. You look at the time, the incredible amount of skill and the time that goes into that service. We’ve got a staff that works seven days a week. We bring in the best people and we feel very confident that they do an outstanding job.”


Hill also feels he negotiated an exemplary contract, given the nature of the period-though many of his members don’t agree (see sidebar). "Gotbaum, Feinstein, they all wound up with layoffs,” he reportedly told a colleague. “I alone,” insisted Hill, “have managed to avoid layoffs.” A spokesperson for Hill denies he made the boast. “Stanley Hill,” she said, “never compares himself to other leaders.”




If New York makes us cynical about the capacity of working people to organize their own affairs, then at least, as Bogart said, “We’ll always have Paris.” At the Gare du Nord and Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris and at railroad stations across France, workers met each day to discuss the tactics and strategy of the strike. As George Seguy, the former head of the CGT, told me in an interview, “The meetings were open. Anyone on strike had a right to speak-CGT,FO, CFDT-as well as workers who didn’t belong to any union. They not only met and debated-each day the workers voted by secret ballot whether to carry on the strike.”


Paul Barets, a professor at the Ecole Normale Supéricure in Paris, argued that in some ways, December’ 95 was a big advance over the great May ’68 revolt that toppled DeGaulle. In ’68, the students and workers spoke a totally different language of opposition. The students insisted on “All power to the imagination” while the workers demanded longer vacations.


In  ’95, however, the workers spoke out not only for their own narrow demands-like keeping retirement at age 50-but for increase benefits for students, young workers, for the unemployed, for the lowest paid workers in the society. They marched under slogans like “37 and a Half for Everybody” and “All of us together, Yes!” Meanwhile, the students not only shut down campuses, they used their free time to collect funds for the workers and presented their collections at a ceremony for the traminots at Austerlitz.


The French December shows what can happen when walls between unions and workers, and workers and society, begin to crack. The strikers left their workplaces to meet with other strikers and even tried to convince other nonstriking workers to join in the movement As Professor Barets puts it, December demonstrates “the depth of a movement that refused to be imprisoned in the demands of a single corporation.”


Appeasement means pursuing concession at someone else’s expense; its how our corporatist union leaders earn their living. By turning unions into insurance companies, by atomizing workers into consumers who purchase union services with their dues, municipal union leaders have made the exercise of solidarity not just unfeasible but almost unimaginable. New Yorkers need more than a raise. We have to learn how to resist a bald-headed bully. Perhaps we could begin by learning some French.






Mayor Rudolph Guiliani says the historic 60-month contract he just signed with DC 37, the municipal labor union that represents 125,000 city workers, is “historic…No other city and no other group of labor unions have been able to achieve the innovations we’ve been able to achieve.” The pact contains “double zeros”-no wage increases for two years in exchange for job security pledges. Stanley Hill, the leader of DC 37, calls the agreement “a good contract for tough times.”


But the true measure of a contract’s worth is not what critics think but what the workers who have to live with under the contract think. And as far as this latest contract goes, only a handful of top officials will ever know what the members truly thought of the deal. Hill says his members, voting just after city teachers had rejected a similar package from the mayor, approved their pact 19,513 to 14,438. But he refuses to release the results of the voting in individual locals.


If Hill didn’t “steal” the votes to win-as AFSCME Local 420 President Jim Butler and other union local presidents in and out of AFSCME have charged-he gave a good imitation of someone who feared scrutiny. If he had nothing to hide, why did he refuse requests to allow the American Arbitration Association to count all the votes?


“It goes back to our constitution,” Hill explained to me.” “Every local has the autonomy to decide how their ratification process shall be held. Only two opted for AAA. The other 46 locals decided on either a membership meeting, or on-site elections, or mail ballot.”


But at one membership meeting-in Charlie Hughes’s 20,000-member Board of Education workers’ Local 372-the vote, according to The Chief-Leader, the civil service weekly, was an incredible 347-3 for the contract. Isn’t there something wrong with this process when only 1 per cent of the members vote? “It was a very cold night,” Hill pointed out. “Charles has a reputation of large turnouts. The activism in the union is outstanding. His reputation is impeccable.”


As for the exact total in the vote that night, however, Hill can’t comment because the impeccable Hughes refuses to confirm the specific totals. And Hill, according to the rules of the DC 37 constitution, must respect his wishes.


“We’re not saying Stanley did a ‘Doris Turner,’” a high-ranking DC 37 official says, referring to the blatant ballot-stuffing exercise that led to Turner, the former head of the hospital workers’ Local 1199, being voted out of office in 1986. What happened, according to the official who requested anonymity, was this:

“About mid December, Stanley realized he didn’t have enough votes. You had Butler and a bunch of locals voting heavily against the contract. Given those ‘no’ margins, and even if all of the votes they had in were marked ‘yes,’ they knew they were about 6,000 votes short. So they had to prolong the voting process to get more votes.”


Hill kept delaying. First it was the snow. Then it was the cold. But basically the problem wasn’t thermal. It was arithmetical: they needed more votes.


The shortfall had been created by Hill’s ally Hughes. He’d screwed up his ratification votes. True, he’d produced a lopsided ratification vote at his membership meeting. But forget the three votes against the contract-he’d produced only a handful of votes for the contract. The leadership begged him to carry out a mail vote. But Hughes refused. Some speculated that he didn’t want to set a precedenct-i.e., the members voting by secret ballot.


So how did Hill finally get the votes? The key was Al Diop (president of AFSCME Local 1549, the clerical union). Diop is the real power in DC 37. He has 25,000 members-the most of any AFSCME local. So he controls the most delegates. Essentially, as long as Hill stays on the good side of Diop-and one other “5 per cent local” like Charlie Hughes’s-he can remain as Executive Director.


“Diop saved the contract,” says the AFSCME official. “The people of 1549 could tell from the outside of the envelopes which members had voted. They checked those who had voted against those who hadn’t. And then they went out and saw to it that those who hadn’t vote cast a mail ballot. This way at least there’d be enough votes. They produced 12,000 votes. In 1549 the tally was 10,000 to 2,000. The contract was approved by 5,000 votes.”


Of course, Hill totally rejects this scenario. Did the turnout in Diop’s Local 1549 exceed all other locals by a suspiciously large margin? Not at all, he says. “The people who are crying ‘wolf’ and ‘fire’ just don’t have the guts to acknowledge that this local always produces the highest number of activists. I know every local. And the sad part of it is that 1549 delivers and theirs simply don’t.”


The problem with this argument, points out Ed Fursa, treasurer of AFSCME 1930, is that the people who vote in the contract ratification contests tend to be the people with seniority. And because of the complex “bumping” provisions, they’re precisely the ones who don’t have to worry about layoffs. “What was there in this contract for them to vote for?” he asks. “The double zeros?”


If it is hard to understand why so many in 1549 voted ‘yes,’ what about the apparent lack of motivation on the part of those who were put at risk of losing jobs? What about the 6,000 hospital clericals in Diop’s local? They got the zeros and no job guarantees. Yet Diop’s entire local recorded a total of only 2267 votes against the contract, while the hospital workers of Butler’s Local 420 voted 100-1 against the contract.


There are lots of unanswered questions. But this much is incontestable: Hill kept the balloting going for nearly two months. He kept postponing the end of the election. And he never provided a complete breakdown of the results by individual locals. No wonder one dissident staffer cracked, “Stanley thinks having a secret ballot means keeping the results of the ballot secret.”


What Hill, Diop, and Hughes have made clear it that what the members think doesn’t matter much one way or the other: whether you vote or don’t vote, cast a yes or a no ballot, the leadership gets it way.


Especially if it’s not the way the membership wants to go. Does anyone think Guiliani would win a straw poll in the 125,000-member union? Yet, when I asked Hill, who’s already given Guiliani $2,000 for his reelection campaign, if he would rule out endorsing Guiliani next year for mayor, he refused. “I can’t respond to ‘97’. I’m into this election, in ‘96’ and getting Clinton reelected,” he insisted.

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